Farewell to our grandparents: Rebuilding the Libraries

By: Pratheeba Kanaga – Thillainathan


“When an elder dies, it is as if an entire library has burned to the ground”

– an old African proverb


Arranged behalf of the Nuit Blache 2010,  “fragments is a site-specific modern memorial to the tens of thousands of Toronto residents who have experienced atrocities. More than 500 object artifacts belonging to survivors including relevant articles of clothing, personal photographs, identity cards, prison or medical reports documenting violations, was displayed at Lamport stadium on King Street in a rowed queue of podiums. These objects represent the fragmented memories of survivors” <http://www.fragments.ca/Site_14/Fragments.html>.

And with those memories, the boxes placed in the stadium, resembled the graveyards of martyrs; and, the people looked as if paying a tribute to them.  The place where onlookers who by interest or by chance driven in to the memory of violence, war and death, they were kneeling down before some boxes, some reading and some passing them without, and some moving the bicycles in between the boxes and walking, not having much time for 1000s of those memorials. 1000s of violations around the world trapped in each little boxes, as a memory, so in ready to share its history.

Similar is the urge behind exhibiting the things related to our late grandma.  After her death, we were left with her remains.  They were everywhere; tangible and not tangible, speaking to us very intensely.  That brought the idea to put those remaining together in one place and organize an exhibition with her memories, where these things relate to the dead one, would move you before you realizing it.   I spread everything that connected to her in a small mat she has made with dry coconut leaves– the mat which was in the the size of a space, in an IDP camp – given to one family.  That image of an IDP camp made us want to do an event that is beyond personal grief; an event that could  be related by others too.

It is that, such thoughts during War, thoughts regarding what War have taken away from us and keep on taking away from us.  It has abolished our history in many direct and indirect ways as it could.  One is the loss of oral history of our elders’ in the war torn Tamil regions along with other social, linguistic and political loss.  Our elders were dying, while displacing weak and vulnerable, and dying because of age everywhere – in exile and in the land, without their children.

In the post-war era: its about time to focus – also – on matters that are considered a-political, but they are when it comes to anthropological point of view.  Be it recording the great folk songs our grandmothers sung to us, or the numerous oral stories they have told us, we have to record each of them as a contribution to  preserve the oral heritage as well to enrich and honor each linguistic ethnic history.


“farewell to our grand-parents” was organized by ‘misfits-For-Change’ with the purpose of honoring our elders oral history/ heritage, and possibly engaging dialogues on steps towards documenting them.  It is a very small get-together to talk about a not so hyped matter.  To talk about the history/herstory we are losing with each of the elders’ we have lost.

With an expected small [and thoughtful] number of audience it did meet its purpose. Though, there was no set goal for the conversations that took place, we do have a set goal to ‘do’ something to document our grandparents’ ‘his/her-stories.  The continuity (and the positive moving forward of what had been discussed there) would be, screening or publishing or Documenting of our elders’ oral stories. and continue to influence many people to honor the elders they have known, by engaging in dialogues with them on their past [which we never had seen nor lived] and finding ways to creatively documenting them.


I wouldn’t forget that weekend, while we were sleeping, the writer & artist Melichchi muththan called to bring the invaluable Painting of our late grandmother which I have asked him to sketch for the exhibition event. It was near 9 a.m and we are not the early risers especially over the weekend. But he brought her home, her -our dear one, and she was smiling in the canvas in a bright orange sweater and green background, praising the artist’s power of observation and the details of each lines of age on her face.  How interesting the fact that he has never ‘seen’ our grandmother in person.  I was stunned by this artistic possibility, to bring her life, with oil paint on canvass.

It was such genuine enthusiasms and artistic contribution that I would like to thank, as behalf of the misFits – because it is that presence of such artistic expressions [as Sketches, Painting, Photography and Poetry] made the event creatively unique and honored our special theme.

We are debted to the Photographers: Nishant Ratnakar & Bharani.D; Artists: Nila Tharshayene L & Melinchchi Muththan, Poets: mayoo mano, Natkeeran & Thanya, for the permission to use their works and wishes for the event; and thanks for dear Kones for booking the centre and to our Speakers Parvathy Kandsamy and Mathy for putting their inputs, as well as all the eager participants (especially few who came earlier than us!) for all your inputs and time.

Thank You all, for your support for this small event.

End Note:

When writing on a photograph he took of his grandma, Nishant Ratnakar wrote, in his blog post ‘to amma’:

“Most of the times when left alone, she would get into a cycle of singing prayers. A prayer would be followed by her joining hands and bowing to the almighty. And this cycle would continue until somebody interrupted and diverted her attention. It was during one of those prayer sessions by the window, I stepped into the room with my camera. By then I had clicked portraits off Ajja and others in the house. But seeing Amma in the viewfinder, I somehow couldn’t shoot her picture. The face of Amma one has in their minds is from her healthier and jovial days. I was stuck in a dilemma. I began to wonder if it would be rude of me to document her in this state. But, I had to have Amma’s picture in my album. So, in that moment of dilemma I framed a silhouette of what Amma did the most in her later years…… pray. A prayer in her own world.”


I think the artistic integrity lies in such moral question. And with the photographs myself and my sister took during the last days of our grandmother, I have realized how she always wanted to look ‘good’ in the photographs. she doesn’t want to be photographed during the times when she is ailing in health, or when her beauty [“pride”] is leaving her. Though the urge to record her journey was a hunger that drove us, we would remember that, wanting to talk about the ‘rosy’ side of their life is their “right” like all of us who doesn’t want to talk about our humiliations and breakups!  The history which is shared with us in that manner, sure leaving a tremendous challenge for us to find out the taboos and secrets from their wor(l)ds, with their self-censorship.

As another note to his grandparents’ house, Nishant wrote:

“…After grandpa’s death at the age 103, people stopped living there. …”

I imagined the possible chronology of events (personal and political) happened during his grandpa’s lifetime, a century, plus 3 years! I thought of the extinct words from his vocabularies.  and history of his village, family, culture, language during those last 103 years… The house of his grandparents became the symbol of unwritten history and a witness without its tongue.

The 30 some years of Sri Lankan civil war has displaced, exiled and killed that particular generation along with others. Whoever left there are the assets to know our past, they are the living libraries, waiting to fall.

Dearest ammamma, dearest elders;
You gave us everything. We read and forget or we do not read them thinking that one day we would have time to read them, but you are gone now. Indeed, a library burned down with the books we didn’t read and the books we forgotten.

We will sure figure out ways to recollect, and honour you, and your life, which holds part of our history.
Meanwhile: Thank You, for all the things you gave amidst our ignorance.

And Yes:

*You are the thousand winds that blow,
You are the diamond glints on snow,
You are the sunlight on ripened grain,
You are the gentle autumn rain.

When I am awaken in the morning’s hush,
You are the swift, uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circled flight.
You are the soft stars that shine at night.

[No] We do not think of you as gone –
You are with us still – in each new dawn.


[*modified version of the old Native American prayer, which consoles the family who has lost a loved one.]

Review on the Event: Dec 4 2010 “farewell to our grandparents'”

Event photographed by: Sathya, Kavusala Kandiah, Mathy Kandasamy

This entry was posted in English, Events | நிகழ்வுகள், Exhibitions, Misfits' collective subs | 'நாம்' -, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

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